Poets and Poetry in an Antipoetic Age

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  • Poets and Poetry in an Antipoetic AgeAuthor(s): Charles A. MoserSource: Slavic Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 48-62Published by:Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2493037 .Accessed: 17/06/2014 16:59

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  • CHARLES A. MOSER

    Poets and Poetry in an Antipoetic Age

    lo098HR B HIam BeE-no6IeRmee ipeAalbe: ]BeTOE y]BR, HO ecTb ewe 6zIaroyxaIbe. HemEorRm H36paHHbIM AaeTcR Co3HaBaTb H CBqTOCTb CBeT[ITX AyM, a neCHef 6aaroAaT&. Ho aiTapeil yYf HeT: Hn3BepeneHbI IyMMpHM, H CTPYHM COpBaiHm C CBgennHOBeMeR JHp1i.

    P. A. Viazemsky: "Kniaziu Aleksandru Mikhailovichu Gorchakovu" (1867)

    Historians of Russian literature would nearly all agree that the 1860s, the most radical period of nineteenth-century Russian intellectual life, witnessed a sharp decline in the esteem in which poetry was held, that it began to recover its prestige only in the 1880s, and that it did not fully regain its previous position until the birth of the symbolist movement. At no other time in the history of Russian literature did poetry and "aesthetics" come under heavier assault. It is the purpose of this paper to investigate the response of the "aesthetic" poets (a label we may employ for those poets who gave pri- mary allegiance to an aesthetic ideal and who were either politically indifferent or actively opposed to radical social doctrine in literature)1 to this attack and the steps they took to counteract the antipoetic spirit of their age. Though, as Turgenev said, the ultimate reasons for poetry's decline in the 1860s are unknowable ("Don't ask me why there are no poets; there are none because there aren't any," he wrote to Ia. P. Polonsky in 1869),2 it is still possible to inquire into the poets' overt actions and reactions in this crucial period in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

    1. D. S. Mirsky labels them the "eclectic poets" on the grounds that they compro- mised with their ideals, "did not believe in the rights of the poetical imagination and sought to reconcile it with the modern spirit of science and positive knowledge" (A History of Russian Literature [New York, 1949], p. 219). As Mirsky tailored his charac- terization for Polonsky only, I prefer to use the term "aesthetic poets" or "aesthetic writers" to designate those poets or critics who insisted upon the importance of aesthet- ics, certainly in poetry, and usually in other spheres of life as well. For an extensive discussion of this period in Russian poetry, see I. Iampolsky, "Nekotorye voprosy russkoi poezii 1850-1860-kh godov," Uchenye zapiski Leningradskogo gosudarstvennogo univer- siteta, no. 200, Seriia filologicheskikh nauk, no. 25 (1955), pp. 23-69.

    2. Turgenev to Polonsky, Apr. 16, 1869, in I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem: Pis'ma (Moscow, 1961-), 8:20 (all dates cited are Old Style).

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 49

    For the radical critics and the aesthetic poets alike, the central elements of the controversy over poetry in the 1860s were joined in the dispute over Pushkin's poetic legacy. For the radical critics, Pushkin symbolized all that was at worst pernicious, at best outdated, in the "poetic" outlook. Dobroliubov, in an article of 1856, though he acknowledged Pushkin's significance in the history of Russian letters, still accused him of having pandered to the reading public's lower instincts and plainly felt that his work was irrelevant to the literature of a later day.3 Some ten years later, when Pushkin's reputation among the radicals had further declined, Pisarev published his exuberant piece "Pushkin i Belinskii," in which he undertook to annihilate Pushkin's reputation for good and all. The critic berated the poet for the triviality, banality, and even harmfulness of many of his sentiments as well as for neglecting such socially useful themes as "the rights and duties of man, his striving toward the bright future, the shortcomings of contemporary reality, the struggle of the human intellect against age-old prejudices."4 In short, the prevailing radical view of Pushkin was that he had been an intellectual non- entity with nothing to say to posterity.

    The one major poet in the radical camp, Nikolai Nekrasov, was ambigu- ous in his attitude toward Pushkin. Though he composed his poem "Nescha- stnye" (1855) in thoroughly Pushkinian style, and though he welcomed the publication of Pavel Annenkov's landmark edition of Pushkin's work in 1855, Nekrasov, always something of an opportunist, hardly mentioned him when radical feeling was running high on the subject, especially during the years 1856-70. However, when the antipoetic bias eased a bit, his natural affinity for Pushkin reasserted itself in the poem "Russkie zhenshchiny" of the 1870s, which depicts Pushkin as a victim of the censorship and the social system under which he lived.5

    In contrast to the radical intellectuals, the aesthetic poets regarded Pushkin as their rallying point and artistic lodestar. One of them, P. A. Viazemsky, had even been a close personal associate of his. In a poem addressed to Pletnev and Tiutchev, written in the poetically arid year of 1864, Viazemsky recalled the halcyon days of poetry which he had enjoyed so mnany years before:

    llucaa He PaR MOJBbI, inicaa q Ha 6e8JImoAb. %TaTedeE MOHx Rpyr cTpamno nopeAea:

    XJyROBCKIIE c llymiiiiimM MoH 6mBaxa CYAb, 5I cTapmx roTepaj, a ROBiX He o6pea;

    3. N. Dobroliubov, "Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin," in Sobranie sochitenii v deviati tomakh (Moscow and Leningrad, 1961-), 1:287-301.

    4. D. Pisarev, Sochineniia (Moscow, 1955-56), 3:397. 5. On the well-worn subject of Nekrasov and Pushkin, see especially the chapter on

    Pushkin in K. Chukovsky, Masterstvo Nekrasova (Moscow, 1952), pp. 7-72.

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  • 50 Slavic Review

    Ho BEI OCTaIiHCb MHe, B BaC HaM.1Tb HX EHBaI, Bm iiy6HRaJI MOl, BbI MOEt apeoiiar, B Bac CBITO TeiiaHTC emge JII6OBb pOAHaa, KOTOpOIO CBeTIeI CeMeRill'l Ham oxiar.6

    Most of the other aesthetic poets of the 1860s had not known Pushkin personally, but they still measured contemporary poetry against the standard of his verse. Fet used Pushkin as a touchstone in a critical discussion of Tiutchev's work;7 Tiutchev in turn accorded Polonsky what the latter felt was the highest of accolades in remarking of a poem of his: "How Pushkin would embrace you for these verses if he were alive !"8 For A. K. Tolstoy, Pushkin's verse was the perfect embodiment of the beautiful. Writing in 1869 to his close friend and constant correspondent Boleslav Markevich, Tolstoy berated Markevich for wavering in his allegiance to the loftiest ideals of art as Tolstoy understood them:

    No matter how Pushkin's wondrous verses:

    HeecqacTilbIli Apyrl CpeAb HOBiIX HOKOitoHEHI

    AOJtEy-qHb roCTH , H -HIfHE H 'yfO ,-

    may be interpreted by animals like Pisarev-upon whom may God have mercy-the interpreters will remain animals, while Pushkin will be a poet forever. Poetry, the beautiful, love for beauty-all these things, my dear friend, are not a matter of fashion, not something which is relative.9

    Pushkin might have been temporarily out of fashion among the radical intelli- gentsia, but Tolstoy was certaiin that the "eternal" qualities of his art would in the end be recognized, and felt it was heretical to doubt this under the pressures of the moment.

    The radical critics objected to poetry, and to Pushkin's work in partic- ular, because they considered it too frequently devoid of "thought," by which they meant politically or socially "progressive" doctrine. Pisarev maintained that any work of literature lacking the proper "guiding thought" should be unequivocally condemned. "Of course nobody will twit Messrs. Fet, Mei, and Polonsky with being deep thinkers," he wrote in 1861, "but at the same time one does find imitations of thoughts and feelings in their lyrical poemns."10 Presumably, Pisarev feared that some readers might be misled by such coun-

    6. P. Viazemsky, "P. A. Pletnevu i F. I. Tiutchevu," in Polnoe sobranie sochinenji (St. Petersburg, 1878-96), 12:127.

    7. A. Fet, "O stikhotvoreniiakh F. Tiutcheva," Ruisskoe slovo, no. 2 (February 1859), section "Kritika," p. 67.

    8. Polonsky to Stasiulevich, Oct. 10, 1871, in M. M. Stasiulevich i ego sovremenniki v ikh perepiske (St. Petersburg, 1912), 3:496.

    9. Tolstoy to Markevich, Nov. 7, 1869, in A. Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomnakh (Moscow, 1963-64), 4:318-19.

    10. Pisarev, "Pisemskii, Turgenev i Goncharov," in Sochineniia, 1:195.

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 51

    terfeit "thought." The radical view of poetry gained such wide acceptance among intellectuals that in the early 1870s M. M. Stasiulevich, editor of the solid and respectable liberal journal Vestnik Evropy, rejected a poem of Polonsky's on the grounds that it was "excessively lyrical," by which he meant it lacked content.'1

    The aesthetic poets were uncertain how to respond to the radical critique. Thoutgh they instinctively rejected the notion that "thought" should be the primary element in a poem, most were unwilling to elaborate. this opinion publicly in its unadulterated form. Iakov Polonsky, the aesthetic poet closest to the radicals, did attempt to defend himself in their terms. Once when Turgenev was planning to defend Polonsky publicly, Polonsky urged him not to speak of aesthetics or "beautiful verses" but rather to concentrate upon "the sense, the thoughts," since it was these things the radical critics found lacking in his verse.'2 Turgenev did not follow this advice, but even if he had he could have done little to enhance Polonsky's reputation among the radicals, for the progressive ideas in Polonsky's poems were too scattered and too weakly stated to satisfy radical demands. Polonsky was caught in the middle between aesthetic and radical camps. During the early 1860s he had befriended the radical prose-writer Nikolai Pomialovsky and had tried un- successfully to save him from the consequences of his acute alcoholism.'3 He wrote many poems exhibiting a well-developed "civic consciousness" and a desire to support causes that the radicals conceded were worthy. In a letter of 1872 to Stasiulevich, defending himself against the charge of having pro- duced a poetic attack on Nekrasov, Polonsky commented: "I myself halfway sympathize with the negators [that is, the radicals], I can't free myself from their influence-and I think that there exists a great and legitimate reason for this which provides direction to our [social] development."'14 Writing to Nekrasov at about the same time, Polonsky started to say-but then recon- sidered and struck out the passage-that since 1865, in his eagerness to keep up with the times, he had frequently betrayed the views of art that he had adopted under Belinsky's tutelage in the 1840s.15 Polonsky's intellectual sym- pathy for the radical camp and emotional affinity for the aesthetic poets caused him great frustration. He once remarked in some perplexity that those with whom he had ideological ties considered him superfluous, while

    11. Polonsky to Turgenev, Oct. 28-31, 1873, in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, 73, bk. 2 (Moscow, 1964): 243.

    12. Polonsky to Turgenev, Nov. 25, 1869, ibid., p. 222. 13. E. Shtakenshneider, Dnevntik i zapiski (Moscow and Leningrad, 1934), p. 293. 14. Polonsky to Stasiulevich, Feb. 23, 1872, in M. M. Stasiulevich i ego sovremenniki,

    3:500. 15. Polonsky to Nekrasov, Apr. 7, 1871, in N. Nekrasov, Neisdannye stikhotvoreniia,

    varianty i pis'ma (Petrograd, 1922), pp. 280-81.

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  • 52 Slavic Review

    the aesthetic poets, who knew that he was not in overall agreement with them, valued his work and published it willingly.16

    Other poets, less influenced by radical ideas than Polonsky, sometimes tried to argue that the works of their allies were instinct with thought, but their conception of "thought" was so poetic as to be quite unacceptable to their adversaries. Maikov, for instance, in a short piece written in 1875, in which he instructed a sculptor preparing a monument to Pushkin, maintained that Pushkin had been a great thinker as well as a great poet:

    H3o6pamn ThE B HeM IIO9Ta, 71TO6 B iapcTBe MbICII rapb oH 61bn, WHcOnHeie BHyTpeHHero CBeTa,

    Aa Hm E Hac 6M OXBaTHJI 117

    However, by "thought" Maikov probably meant some generalized cognitive ability not ordinarily covered under the definition of the word.

    Fet dealt with thought in poetry in his own original way. Starting from the premise that it was impossible to reproduce an existing object in toto, with its taste, smell, and so forth, he held that any observer must concentrate upon certain facets of it in order to investigate or reproduce them. Just as the mathematician was concerned with the "outlines or numerical properties" of an object, so the artist concentrated solely upon its beauty, its aesthetic aspect. The object of artistic reproduction might be many things: material objects, personal emotions, or even philosophical thoughts. "Just as poetry itself is the reproduction (vosproizvedenie), not of an object in its entirety, but only of its beauty, so poetic thought is only a reflection of philosophical thought, and again the reflection of its beauty; poetry has no business with its other aspects."''8 Poetic thought differed qualitatively from philosophical thought in that the former attempted to be as all-embracing as the latter strove to be concise. Though "thought" would always be present in a work of art, one could not always predict precisely where it would be found, according to Fet.19 Thus he salvaged the word "thought" for his theory of poetry, but his definition of poetic thought as the reflection of the beauty of philosophical thought diverged so far from the radical definition of poetic thought that in the final accounting Pet completely rejected the radical demand for "thought" in literature. Indeed Fet was so staunchly faithful to the aesthetic principle as to maintain in print that a work of art "containing any didactic tendency at all" was "rubbish" and in private conversation to make such intransigent remarks as: "In our work genuine nonsense is genuine truth," and "My muse

    16. Letter of Feb. 29, 1874, ibid., p. 295. 17. "Vaiateliu," in Maikov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (St. Petersburg, 1914), 1:256. 18. Fet, "O stikhotvoreniiakh F. Tiutcheva,"P pp. 64, 68. 19. Ibid., pp. 68, 69.

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 53

    babbles nothing but absurdities."20 Fet was consistent enough to accept the radicals' critique of poetry without flinching and turn it against them, holding that didacticism and poetry were incompatible.

    Even as the radical critics preached the primacy of thought in literature, so the aesthetic poets held that aesthetic perfection was the most significant attribute of poetry. Of course the demarcation line between the two points of view was not very sharp. Despite their theories, the radicals could not do away with aesthetic sensibility entirely even in themselves. This is obvious from the mere fact that some radicals wrote poetry. The radical grouping included one major poet in the person of Nekrasov, a lesser one in Herzen's emigre colleague Ogarev, and several minor poets gathered about such publi- cations as the satirical journal Iskra, a mainstay of left-wing journalism in the 1860s. This last group (the most prominent among them were Dmitrii Minaev and the Kurochkin brothers, Nikolai and Vasilii) did display a certain talent, especially in their parodies of the aesthetic poets. Nevertheless, most of their production was little more than rhymed journalism, which lost its interest for the reader as soon as the immediate problems to which it referred had passed from memory. The Iskra poets employed artistic form to com- municate a political message, to amuse the ordinary reader while instructing him in the best eighteenth-century manner-but still they did employ it. Even the master nihilist Pisarev (who wrote that once Chernyshevsky's formula "the beautiful is life" was accepted, "aesthetics, to our tremendous satisfac- tion, vanishes in physiology and hygiene"))21 used aesthetics for his own ends: as Polonsky astutely observed, the great influence he had on his readers was partly due to the unusually lively and brilliant language in which his articles were written.22 (Turgenev, by the way, thought Pisarev rather a dandy when he met him in 1867.) 23 Thus the radicals exploited aesthetics in their anti- aesthetic campaign.

    Analogously, most of the aesthetic poets and theoreticians admitted that aesthetics ought to have some social utility. The little-known but interesting critic Nikolai Soloviev (1831-74) argued that the ethical sense derived from the aesthetic feeling with which human beings were naturally endowed. How-

    20. B. Bukhshtab, "Esteticheskie vzgliady Feta," Literaturnaia ucheba, 1936, no. 12, pp. 36, 42.

    21. Pisarev, "Razrushenie estetiki," in Sochineniia, 3:423. 22. See Polonsky's letter of 1867 to the poet Konstantin Sluchevsky in Shchukinskii

    sbornik, no. 7 (Moscow, 1907), p. 335. Incidentally, the problem of Nekrasov's niche in the antipoetic radical camp deserves investigation. He tended to subordinate, sometimes even prostitute, his poetic talent to the political exigencies of the moment, but his gift remained despite the misuse he sometimes made of it.

    23. Turgenev to M. Avdeev, Mar. 30, 1867, in Turgenev, Poloe sobranie sochinenii i pisem: Pis'mna, 6:213.

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  • 54 Slavic Review

    ever, such views were too extreme for the majority of the aesthetic poets. Probably the most widely accepted approach to the question of the relation- ship between aesthetics and social morality was that outlined by A. K. Tolstoy. Tolstoy did not agree with Fet that poetry should be oblivious of moral problems, nor yet with Soloviev that aesthetic sensibility was the cornerstone of all morality. Instead, he held that cognition of the good somehow sprang from the very essence of art itself. Any attempt to detach truth from beauty in art, any indulgence in deliberate didacticism, inevitably led to art's demise. As he wrote on one occasion in a personal letter, contemporary radical writers erred in intentionally setting out to prove something in a way which was thoroughly destructive of aesthetic values. He expressed his aesthetic credo in the following words:

    Something you want to prove can be proved successfully only when you give up the desire to prove it . . . a work of art as such contains within itself all those truths which can never be proved by people who sit down at their desks intending to clothe them in artistic form. I mean to say that art must not be a means; rather it containis within itself all those results which the adherents of the utilitarian view who call themselves poets, novelists, painters, or sculptors are so fruitlessly striving to attain.24

    In a letter to Stasiulevich, Tolstoy inquired indignantly why a work of art had to possess a conscious "tendency" or "aim." The poet maintained that if a writer held genuinely organic and integrated beliefs, they would inescapably be voiced in his writings, quite independently of his conscious desires. "If one has a tendency in life," he said, "then this tendency will express itself naturally in literature-but to set out to do things means to make an instrument out of art and consequently to reject it."25 In other words, by its very nature art must be an end in itself. It was destroyed if it was trans- formed into a mere instrument for the achievement of social aims, no matter how great the artist's genius or how laudable his purpose. The metaphysics of art would not tolerate its subordination to causes external to it, in Tolstoy's opinion.

    To say this was not to maintain that art could never promote utilitarian ends. So long as art itself remained the supreme value, Tolstoy said, it could foster social betterment provided it did so only incidentally.26 For instance,

    24. Tolstoy to Markevich, Jan. 11, 1870, in Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenji, 4:342-43. Dostoevsky's philosophy of art was rather similar to Tolstoy's, for both outlooks were developments of the aesthetic views of such critics as Pavel Annenkov and Alexander Druzhinin, who flourished in the 1850s. On Dostoevsky see R. L. Jackson, Dostoevsky's Quest for Form (New Haven and London, 1966), especially the chapter on his critique of the utilitarian aesthetic, pp. 136-57.

    25. Tolstoy to Stasiulevich, Nov. 17, 1869, in Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenii, 4:324. 26. The radical critics of the 1860s-and Soviet scholars in their footsteps-regularly

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 55

    he claimed that he had been pursuing no explicitly political aims whatever in composing his historical dramatic trilogy in verse (Smert' Joanna groznogo, Tsar' Fedor foannovich, Tsar' Boris), and certainly he had no intention of attacking the monarchy in them, as some thought, for he was too convinced a monarchist-and, he added, too much the artist-to do such a thing. It was true that he condemned monarchical tyranny, but he had not tried to make a point even of this in his plays. Such a conclusion inhered in the work itself: "It is not my fault if it is plain from something I have written out of love for art that despotism is worthless. So muclh the worse for despotism. This will always be clear from any artistic work, even a symphony of Beetho- ven's."27 Genuine devotion to art, Tolstoy was saying, necessarily implied opposition to tyranny, but the converse was not true: even an artist of genius, if he took up his pen when moved solely by hatred for despotism, would betray the aesthetic cause and produce bad art. What is more, such an artist would also fail in his original intention of stimulating opposition to tyranny, since his message was to have depended upon the energies of art for its com- munication.

    The radical critics of course did not restrict themselves to theory in discussing the obligations of the artist. In their capacity as practical reviewers they did everything within their power to denigrate the aesthetic poets when- ever their collections of verse appeared. The two critics most active in this endeavor were Pisarev and Saltykov-Shchedrin, who heaped scorn upon almost any aesthetic poet of the 1860s who dared publish, with a few fortu- itous exceptions made for poets whom the critics happened to like (thus Pisarev gave Maikov a dispensation for a time). Pisarev scolded the aesthetic poets for thinking they served society by "hymning in a thousand different ways shallow variations on shallow feelings," sharply criticized their work for displaying "inimitably shallow basic thought . . . and colossally overblown form," and wrote that Viazemsky did nothing more than make dubious assertions and flail at the air.28 Saltykov-Shchedrin yielded nothing to Pisarev in the ingenuity of his invective against the aesthetic poets. He contemptu- ously tagged Karolina Pavlova "almost the sole representative at the present

    accused the aesthetic poets of promoting the doctrine of "art for art's sake." Fet did adopt this view, but most of his colleagues did not. It is true that in an article of 1862 Tolstoy spoke of himself as dedicated to "art for art's sake" and held that an "instinctive sense of the beautiful" was basic to the formation of any national culture. But this formu- lation was a bit extreme for Tolstoy, and even here he says that art and social conscience should work in alliance, not war with each other. See A. Tolstoy, "Peredelannaia stsena iz Don Zhuana: Pis'mo k izdateliu," Russkii vestnik, 1862, no. 7, pp. 213-15.

    27. Tolstoy to Markevich, Dec. 13, 1868, in Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenii, 4:246. 28. Pisarev, "Pisemskii, Turgenev i Goncharov," in Sochineniia, 1:193, 195, and

    "Moskovskie mysliteli," 1:319.

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  • 56 Slavic Review

    moment of the so-called butterfly school of poetry," a school supposedly char- acterized by its members' penchant for composing pleasant trifles about whatever they chanced to encounter, whether another poet or a Pompeian lamp: everything was grist for such poets' mills.29 Shchedrin had little good to say for Fet, noting (with some justification) that it was not easy to read much of his verse at one sitting.30 On another occasion the critic resisted the temptation to brand Maikov a "slanderer," giving him the benefit of the doubt and deciding that he was merely "myopic."3' Toward the end of the decade Shchedrin nearly crushed Polonsky with a review of the first two volumes of the poet's Sochineniia, in which he wrote that all this eclectic poet had to offer was "an endless string of words connected merely by punctuation marks; an unbearable timidity of intellect, incapable of evoking a single clear image or formulating a single straightforward concept; a foggy diffusiveness of ex- pression which makes you think there is some unpleasant riddle concealed in each word."32 Polonsky was distressed by this review, and we shall have occasion to return to his reaction below.

    As a result of such attacks the atmosphere of the 1860s became distinctly unfavorable to politically uncommitted poetry. The radicals wielded power out of proportion to their numbers and created such intense pressure for con- formity in intellectual life that only the most independent or opinionated could stand against it. Polonsky, in a letter to Turgenev, told of how a friend of his, the minor critic V. V. Chuiko (1839-99), had reneged on a promise to write a critical article in his defense:

    "It is extremely difficult for me to write about you [Polonsky is quoting Chuiko's words] in such a way as to tell the truth without at the same time arousing the wrath of the party which cannot stand poetry and which will certainly leave me without work or anything to eat if I should praise you or look upon you as a poet, not jokingly, but seriously. What can you do about it? This party possesses such power because all of society is the same way. Do you think a poet means anything in the Russian society of our day? He does not. He's a cipher and nothing more. It's barbarous. It is total ignorance, all that is very true, but when in Rome you must do as the Romans do. If I think in European fashion, I will starve in Russia-nobody will employ me." So my friend said [Polonsky continues], and of course I couldn't help agreeing with him.

    29. Review of Pavlova's Stikhotvoreniia of 1863 in Otechestveitnye zapiski, June 1863; see M. Saltykov-Shchedrin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1933-41), 5:310-11.

    30. Review of Fet's Stikhotvoreniia of 1863; ibid., p. 331. 31. Review of Maikov's Novye stikhotvoreniia of 1864; ibid., p. 377. 32. Review published in Otechestvennye zapiski, September 1869; see text in Salty-

    kov-Shchedrin, Polnoe sobrasie sochinestii, 8:372-76.

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 57

    ... Praise for me is a dissonance. And in order to create this dissonance one has to be completely independent both spiritually and materially.33

    In response to the unrelenting radical pressure, the aesthetic poets' first impulse must have been either to cease writing altogether, or else to communi- cate only with the "chosen few" (in Viazemsky's words) who appreciated them. The first option must initially have seemed attractive to at least one poet at the time, if we may judge from a poem of the 1890s by Apollon Maikov which probably reflects his thinking of an earlier period. According to this viewpoint, the artist should serve Eternal Beauty alone, disdaining the Philistine crowd. In particular, the poet should write for his own personal benefit, and not in order to communicate:

    OH IHJI B CaMOM ce6e; llHcaj AHIfIb Aya ce6ff, Be3 BCRJI4X HIOMbICJOB 0 cZiaBe B HaCTORJeM, 0 CZaBe B 6YAYIeM... JJHIb JpaCOTy J7I06I, HcEai JHMb BelIHoe B MBJI1HB IpeXOARIIeM. OTIeJrbHImK-'ETO Ze OH AJHJ CBeTa MOmeT AaTbl

    - 'leMy EI BbIHOCI4Tb Ha pBHOE BCeeHapO Hib llIOA COKpOBeHHbIx Aym HaCTe%b paCTBOJpfTb CBJTHJIHWe AyHiH o-IaM TOJIIIbI XOJIOAHOi... 34

    Not so many poets as one might have expected did retreat from an un- appreciative public in the 1860's. Some were quite prolific. Viazemsky, for instance, wrote a great deal of poetry then, though little of it was pub- lished until his collected works appeared (between 1878 and 1896). He felt apologetic about his continued productivity, however. In "Opravdanie" (1863), he pondered why he bothered writing verses in an age that considered them "childish entertainment." Poetry, he said, was his method of assuaging his spiritual anguish (pechal'): where others resorted to drink, he wrote verse.35 The other aesthetic poets also continued to write, and to publish as well. Even Polonsky, despite his talk of abandoning his calling for lack of public response, published several long poems and collections of verse during the 1860s and early 1870s: the poem Kuznechik-muzykant in 1863, the collection Ottiski in 1866, his collected works in four volumes in 1869-70, and the first volume of Snopy in 1871. Both Fet and Karolina Pavlova put out collections of poetry in 1863. A volume by Maikov appeared in 1864, one by A. K. Tolstoy in 1867, and one by Tiutchev in 1868. Even this incom- plete listing of separate publications by the aesthetic poets, together with the

    33. Polonsky to Turgenev, Dec. 27, 1869, in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, 73, bk. 2: 228. 34. "Moemu izdateliu (A. F. Marksu)," in Maikov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii,

    1:268. 35. Viazemsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 12:18.

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  • 58 Slavic Review

    numerous individual poems published in journals, demonstrates that the aesthetic poets by no means fell silent during the 1860s.

    The aesthetic poets sustained their morale through mutual aid and en- couragement, though professional jealousies were still far from muted. A. K. Tolstoy was especially active in this area. He lent moral support to Karolina Pavlova, even though by the early 1860s she was living permanently in Germany. The two corresponded frequently, and in 1861 Tolstoy assured Pavlova that only with her could he "immerse [himself] in art up to the ears."36 Pavlova translated several of Tolstoy's plays and poems into German. More important for our purposes, she credited Tolstoy with having restored her to the ways of genuine poetry. As she wrote in the initial stanza of a poem apparently dating from the first years of their friendship (1860-62):

    CiiacHo BaMI H NTO CJIOBO ByAb BaM BCerAamHHK MO'H iplBeT!

    CiaciH6o Bam 3a TO, 'ITO CHOBa a o moiaa, ITO a HODT.37

    Tolstoy encouraged Polonsky in time of need and on occasion placed his poems in journals. Once, after Polonsky had expressed uncertainty over the future of poetry, Tolstoy wrote to him: "You and I are not the last Mohicans of art; it will not and cannot die, no matter how hard these Chernyshevskys, Pisarevs, Stasovs and others try to kill it, directly or indirectly. It is as difficult to kill art as it is to deprive a man of his right to breathe on the pretext that breathing is a luxury and a waste of time, because it doesn't turn mill wheels or inflate a bellows. I assure you that these gentlemen pose no danger for art at all."38 Tolstoy also admired Fet, whom he described as a "unique poet, without peer in any literature, and far superior to his time, which is incapable of appreciating him"39 (Fet, be it noted, did not reciprocate Tolstoy's approbation).40 In such fashion Tolstoy bolstered his fellow poets' flagging spirits.

    If the aesthetic poets felt that some public defense of their craft was required, there were several tacks they might adopt. They could use their poetry either to assault their opponents or to defend themselves; they could write articles to elaborate their own theoretical premises, attack the radicals, or shield themselves from adverse criticism. Although their standards of poetic detachment would not permit many to reply to their critics in verse,

    36. Tolstoy to Pavlova, Oct. 25, 1861, in Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenji, 4:144. 37. "Gr. A. K. T. . . mu [Tolstomu]," in K. Pavlova, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii

    (Leningrad, 1939), p. 113. 38. Tolstoy to Polonsky, Dec. 20, 1868, in Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenii, 4:249. 39. Tolstoy to Markevich, July 8, 1869; ibid., p. 306. 40. See the quotation from a letter of his to Polonsky in Bukhshtab, "Esteticheskie

    vzgliady Feta," p. 41.

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 59

    some did employ this tactic. Consequently there appeared the "antinihilist" current in Russian poetry, that is, the directly satirical treatment of radical doctrine. Fet, Tiutchev, and Maikov contributed nothing significant to poetic antinihilism, but Polonsky wrote several antinihilist poems, and Tolstoy was a leader of this movement despite his theoretical opposition to tendentious

    literature.41 However, since I have published a more detailed treatment of this subject elsewhere, there is no necessity to dwell upon it here.42

    Polonsky made use of verse to defend the aesthetic principle of poetry, but his defense was timid and halfhearted because of his radical sympathies. Art was a pleasant and even important element of human culture, but hardly as central as Tolstoy held it to be. Poetry's role, though not negligible, was definitely ancillary:

    CIoJbibo pau TBep,AIaa qepHb IIODTy:

    Tm KaEK BeTep He AaenM nIoAa, xAe6tmIx 3epel TMI He ceemb Ic JieTy, faTBm He c6HpaemIH B oceHb.-Aa,-

    AIXyX IloiTa-BeTep; Ho Ror,a OH BeeT, B He6e o6jaKa c rpo3of ITJIhIByT,

    lloA rpo3o0 TYIqHeR poAHaa HHBa BpeeT

    H IpeTM pociomHee IpBeTyT.43

    If we ignore the pejorative term chern' in this passage (inherited from Pushkin's famous poem on a similar topic), Polonsky is seen to concede more to poetry's detractors than he attempts to defend. But then Polonsky usually vacillated when he dealt with such matters.

    A. K. Tolstoy, being more firmly convinced of his fundamental rightness than Polonsky, defended the poetic cause more vigorously. The depth of Tolstoy's belief in poetry is evident in the poem "Protiv techeniia" (1867), a programmatic work for the aesthetic poets as a group. The piece is perme- ated with a religious sense of the poet's obligation to serve the eternal ideal of beauty despite the transient passions of the crowd, an attitude also in evidence in the passages already cited from Maikov ("Moemu izdateliu") and Viazem- sky ("Kniaziu A. M. Gorchakovu"). In the last stanza Tolstoy exhorted his fellow poets to unwavering faith that in the end their cause would prevail despite its current vicissitudes:

    41. Tolstoy might have justified his antinihilismn to himself with the following chain of reasoning: (1) hatred of tyranny is invariably linked with love for art (as he contended when speaking of his dramatic trilogy) ; (2) the main threat of (intellectual) tyranny at the time came from the radical left; (3) therefore antinihilism was a natural concomitant of love for art.

    42. See C. Moser, "Antinihilism in Russian Poetry of the 1860's," The Slavic and East European Journal, 9, no. 2 (Summer 1965): 155-73.

    43. "Iubilei Shillera" (1862), in Ia. Polonsky, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (St. Petersburg, 1896), 1:360.

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  • 60 Slavic Review

    ApyrH, rpe6HTe! HanIpacuo XyJiTeiiH MHET ocEOp6aTb Hac CBoeio ropAinexo- Ha 6eper Bcicope MM, BOJH lo6eAlaTemi, BbitAeM TOpceCTBseHHo c naimieR CBITMHeio! BepX HaA KoHeJHlmm BO3bmeT 6ecEoHeTqHoe, Bepoio B Hame CBATTOe 3HaqeHrne MM ace Bo36yAMla Te-eHnie BCTpe-IHoe

    IIpOTnB Te'IeHHI I44

    Tolstoy attached major significance to this poem, for he intended to place it at the beginning of a volume of his poetry that was being planned at the time of his death in 1875. It is perhaps the best single expression of the aesthetic poets' credo in a hostile decade.

    Although not especially given to composing programmatic or polemical articles, the aesthetic poets occasionally wrote prose essays setting forth their own ideas or criticizing their opponents' viewpoint. For example, Fet and the aesthetic critic Vasilii Botkin wrote (but did not publish) an extensive article on the subject of Chernyshevsky's novel Chto delat'? ;46 in addition Fet printed a few articles setting forth his disagreement with radical artistic doc- trine. In one such article of 1866, he said: "[The true artist] is too firmly committed to his cause, is too aware of its harmonious task to suffer doubt even for an instant or to disfigure his cause by extraneous admixtures. The artist who, at a moment when he is serving pure art, takes a spade or broom in hand, utters his own condemnation. With one foot he has already descended from his unshakable pedestal to the level of the crowd."47

    Although only the more convinced adherents of the aesthetic creed (Fet, to a lesser extent Tolstoy) attacked their opponents so vigorously, the vacil- lating Polonsky once tried to best the radicals by arguing, not only that he had reached their conclusions before them, but even that he had voiced them in poetic form! In a lengthy essay of 1867 on Pisarev, published in Oteche- stvennye zcspiski (Nekrasov obviously consented to print it solely as a personal favor to his friend) ,48 Polonsky turned some of the critic's own weapons against him, suggesting, for example, that passages of Pisarev's prose be turned into poetry, just as he had transformed Pushkin's verse into prose in order to demonstrate its vacuity. Though he agreed with many of the radical approaches, Polonsky upheld the importance of form in poetry and

    44. Tolstoy, Sobranie sochinenji, 1:196. 45. A. Tolstoy, Poinoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Leningrad, 1937), p. 735. 46. See the text in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, 25-26 (1936): 485-544. 47. A. Fet, "Po povodu statui g. Ivanova na vystavke Obshchestva liubitelei khudo-

    zhestv," in Khudozhestvennyi sbornik (Moscow, 1866), p. 78. 48. Ia. Polonsky, "Prozaicheskie tsvety poeticheskikh semen," Otechestvennye zapiski,

    171, bk. 2 (April 1867): 714-49.

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  • Poets in an Antipoetic Age 61

    berated Pisarev as an inconsistent, contradictory thinker, while calling atten- tion to the dangers of his followers' self-assertiveness: "The intolerance of such a [literary] party will inevitably alienate it from open-minded society, which will sense a species of despotism in this intolerance."49

    Amusingly ingenious as it was in its own way, this article failed to convert the radicals to the poetic viewpoint. Some three years later, working partly in cooperation with Turgenev, Polonsky mounted another campaign in defense of aesthetics, which backfired because he was insufficiently intransi- gent. Polonsky felt that Saltykov-Shchedrin's review of the first two volumes of his collected works (mentioned above) was too unfair to pass unchallenged. Realizing that a defense would be more effective if conducted by someone else, he was pleased at Turgenev's willingness to support him publicly. The novelist published a statement on Polonsky in the form of a letter to the newspaper Sanktpeterburgskie vedomosti (no. 8, 1870), but committed two serious tacti- cal errors. First, he lauded Polonsky's verse for its aesthetic worth instead of its "ideas," an approach that only alienated the radicals. Second, he used the piece to even scores with his long-standing enemy Nekrasov, while dealing gently with the chief offender, Saltykov-Shchedrin.50 After criticizing Nekra- sov's verse, in which, he said, there was "not a nickel's worth of poetry," Turgenev ventured the ludicrously inaccurate prophecy: "I am convinced that lovers of Russian literature will still be reading Polonsky's best poems when Mr. Nekrasov's very name has been forgotten."5''

    Polonsky was so distressed by Turgenev's attack on Nekrasov that he wrote both to Nekrasov to apologize for his ally's intemperance and to Turgenev to chide him for overstepping the bounds of decency. The latter, though he admitted that perhaps he should have left Nekrasov out of the dispute, would not concede that he was wrong in his evaluation of Nekrasov's poetry.52 But then after this and other imbroglios Turgenev concluded that it was useless if not actually harmful for a writer to defend himself in print against the radicals. He argued in this spirit with Polonsky approximately a year later, when the poet had printed a foreword to his collection Snopy in which he spoke darkly of "literary and nonliterary enemies" who delighted in denigrating his work. Saltykov-Shchedrin retaliated with an anonymous review of Snopy in Otechestvennye zapiski of February 1871, in which the

    49. Ibid., p. 749. 50. In fact, Nekrasov had made some fairly favorable remarks on Polonsky in a

    review article of 1866; -see N. Nekrasov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem (Moscow, 1948-52), 9:441.

    51. See the text of the letter in I. Turgenev, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1953-58), 11:193-99.

    52. Turgenev to Polonsky, Jan. 29, 1870, in Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem: Pis'ma, 8:182-83.

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  • 62 Slavic Review

    critic berated Polonsky for a "lack of clarity" in his approach to things, lambasted his narrative antinihilist poem "Noch' v Letnem sadu," and de- clared him an utter obscurantist.53 Enraged at this new assault, Polonsky replied specifically to Saltykov-Shchedrin in a brochure entitled "Retsenzent Otechestvennykh zapisok i otvet emu Ia. P. Polonskogo" (dated March 10, 1871). Unhappily Polonsky's polemical gift was so minimal that he under- mined his own case with his attacks on the "slanders" of his enemies, his protestations that these "slanders" did not bother him anyway, and his recom- mendation that his opponent "develop his taste and learn how to think." One had to be a more talented polemicist than this to challenge Saltykov-Shchedrin successfully. Turgenev was quite justified in criticizing Polonsky's clumsy brochure in a letter to him. After first placating him with the doubtful asser- tion that his rebuttal was "utterly logical and irrefutable," Turgenev went on to say that nonetheless he should have held his peace. The reading public, he said, reasoned as follows whenever it encountered a "reply": "He's answer- ing, which means he's trying to justify himself, which means he's wrong."54

    In Turgenev's considered judgment, then, the best defense of poetry was, not a good offense, but no defense at all. The debatable assumption behind this was that the reading public would conclude that the thing under attack was sufficiently sturdy not to require any defense. The radical viewpoint could be best refuted by the survival of the thing under siege, in this case poetry. Under the circumstances it is probably true that the aesthetic poets con- founded their opponents most effectively simply by continuing to write and publish in their own way. It took a thoroughly convinced, brilliant polemicist like Dostoevsky to combat the radicals on their own ground, for though they delighted in attacking others, the radicals reacted violently to criticism of themselves, and most of the aesthetic poets had no stomach for prolonged and acrid controversy. They were reluctant to employ poetry itself as an ideo- logical weapon because of their aesthetic principles. Furthermore, they were hampered in defending art because they half agreed with the radicals that it should in some way be "socially useful." Most of them did not follow Fet's lead, or do as the symbolists later did-seize the banner of their disgrace and raise it on high, proclaiming that poetry was indeed not "socially useful" and that it should not be so. Rather, the aesthetic poets usually maintained that poetry could be "socially useful," but only indirectly, if it retained its primary loyalty to the aesthetic ideal. The radicals rejected this line of reasoning and continued their attack on poetry. Thereafter, the most suitable response the aesthetic poets could make to them was to live, write, publish, and wait for the storm to pass. In the course of time it did.

    53. Saltykov-Shchedrin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 8:422-30. 54. Turgenev to Polonsky, Apr. 24, 1871, in Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i

    pisem: Pis'ma, 9:85.

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    Article Contentsp. [48]p. 49p. 50p. 51p. 52p. 53p. 54p. 55p. 56p. 57p. 58p. 59p. 60p. 61p. 62

    Issue Table of ContentsSlavic Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 1-183Front MatterNikita Panin, Russian Diplomacy, and the American Revolution [pp. 1-24]Smoler's Idea of Nationality [pp. 25-47]Poets and Poetry in an Antipoetic Age [pp. 48-62]The Private Sector in Soviet Agriculture [pp. 63-71]Notes and CommentThe Question of a Standard Gauge for Russian Railways, 1836-1860 [pp. 72-80]A National Liberation Movement and the Shift in Russian Liberalism, 1901- 1903 [pp. 81-91]Regional State Archives in the USSR: Some Notes and a Bibliography of Published Guides [pp. 92-115]

    Review ArticleReview: The Town in "Feudal" Russia [pp. 116-122]

    ReviewsReview: untitled [pp. 123-124]Review: untitled [pp. 124-125]Review: untitled [pp. 125-127]Review: untitled [pp. 127-128]Review: untitled [pp. 128-129]Review: untitled [pp. 129-130]Review: untitled [pp. 130-132]Review: untitled [pp. 132-133]Review: untitled [pp. 133-134]Review: untitled [pp. 134-135]Review: untitled [pp. 135-136]Review: untitled [pp. 136-137]Review: untitled [pp. 138-139]Review: untitled [pp. 139-140]Review: untitled [pp. 141-142]Review: untitled [pp. 142-143]Review: untitled [pp. 143-145]Review: untitled [pp. 145-146]Review: untitled [pp. 146-147]Review: untitled [pp. 147-148]Review: untitled [p. 149]Review: untitled [pp. 150-153]Review: untitled [pp. 153-154]Review: untitled [pp. 154-156]Review: untitled [pp. 156-157]Review: untitled [pp. 157-158]Review: untitled [pp. 158-160]Review: untitled [pp. 160-161]Review: untitled [pp. 161-163]Review: untitled [pp. 163-164]Review: untitled [pp. 164-166]Review: untitled [pp. 166-167]Review: untitled [p. 168]Review: untitled [p. 169]Review: untitled [pp. 170-171]Review: untitled [pp. 171-172]Review: untitled [pp. 172-174]Review: untitled [pp. 174-175]Review: untitled [pp. 175-177]

    News of the Profession [pp. 178-179]Books Received [pp. 180-183]Back Matter